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Review of concert from 2003-09-24: NYC, NY, Town Hall - with Steve Nieve
Fox News, 2003-09-25
- Roger Friedman


Costello the Crooner, Tonight On A&E

Elvis Costello -- who appears tonight on A&E's "Live by Request" at 10 p.m. -- is never less than interesting. On his last American date before heading to Japan, he lived up to his reputation. Wednesday night's show at Town Hall in Manhattan was full of Elvis -- the man, the music, the crooner.

That's right: Costello, who was the original angry young man of punk rock circa 1976, loves to croon. He's turned his voice into something of a weapon in the process, sometimes sounding like a dog in heat and other times coming close to a sweetness his fans -- me among them -- could not have expected in those early days.

We love him either way.

Prolific to a fault, Costello has just released a new album which is called "North" but should have been named "I Absolve Myself." That's because two years ago he fell in love with jazz performer Diana Krall, but let his longtime wife get the word through the press. He's just put their $1 million-plus Dublin estate on the market, too. The songs in "North" are all about being in love with Krall because he can't help himself.

But Krall shouldn't feel too comfortable. Costello included his "I Still Have That Other Girl In My Head" toward the end of Wednesday's show.

Most of the songs on "North" have the kind of pithy lyrics Costello is famous for, but nearly all of them lack the melodic strengths of his usual work.

Oddly enough even these songs came across pretty well in concert, because Costello has become -- and really, I would have lost this bet back in 1991 -- playful, dramatic, and engaging on stage. As my grandmother might say, "Can you beat it?" Back in 1991, Costello appeared on stage looking like Jerry Garcia's worst nightmare, with long unruly hair, bloated, a mess. It felt like he might shoot the audience. Something happened in the late 90s -- Prozac, maybe -- and now we have the new, happy Elvis.

This show, to keep costs down, consisted only of Costello and his faithful pianist/accompanist Steve Nieve. Against a barely composed backdrop the pair ran through some of the new numbers, mixing in Costello favorites. They dropped Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" into the middle of Costello's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," which had the pleasing effect of eating a Valhrona chocolate dessert. Costello also polished off Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," as well as grand renditions of "All This Useless Beauty," "45" and "A Man Out of Time." They were spine tingling in the best way, which is something to say about a 48-year-old performer who's been at it since Gerald Ford was president.

So what about "North?" It might cause people to fall asleep at the wheel if played in a car. But that's a cheap shot.

Even when Costello is ponderous he isn't boring. I take "North" as a notebook for future work. After all, it wasn't more than 18 months ago that he gave us "When I Was Cruel," an album so good that it got no mainstream awards of any kind. And "North" is not without its gems. In "Still," Costello actually comes close to the compositions of his heroes: Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. And that's saying a whole lot.

What next? I'd say we're headed toward the Elvis Costello Broadway musical, like it or not. And I'm going to like it.


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